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Thinking Inside The Box 

More wineries opt for alternative packaging

Once, at an outdoor concert, my corkscrew went missing. While my friends watched with horror, I banged the wine bottle's butt flat against a tree until it spat out its cork.

Thankfully, I won't have to worry about corkscrews much longer. For the first time in history, we're getting vintage-dated, high-end wines with "alternative" packaging, so my days of sadistic bottle behavior are over. With more and more wineries realizing the advantages of cork-free bottles, hell, I might even be able to ditch the cumbersome corkscrew forever.

Yes, there are plenty of image-conscious people who still shun jugs and wine-in-a-box ("cask" in marketing parlance), but those attitudes will soon be as demode as hip-huggers. Alternative closures -- much like flavored "malternatives" -- are hot. Fashionable winemakers like Joel Gott, who produces Three Thieves jug zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon, got fed up with uppity attitudes and decided to shake things up. With fellow wine professionals Charles Bieler and Roger Scommegna, Gott buys bulk wine from various places in California, and bottles it in moonshine-like, 1-liter versions of the classic Almaden jug. Normal wine bottles have 25 percent less wine in them, so the Thieves' super-sized, screw-capped bottle can provide "fun, good wine and good value to the wine-buying public." Isn't that nice to hear?

Three Thieves is now available in most states. And at $11 for a 1-liter bottle of high-quality zinfandel, it's a steal -- thus the catchy name. The Thieves' latest crusade is "Tetra Pak" packaging: a lightweight, recyclable cardboard container similar to juice boxes -- but definitely not made for kids. Look for Bianca, their white Italian blend, on shelves in early 2005.

Then there's the really tough sell -- cask packaging. With the likes of insipid, lowbrow Franzia paving the proverbial path, I'm not surprised Americans aren't lovin' the idea of wine being squeezed from a plastic bag.

But you should love it. 'Cause it works.

The "bag in a box," so-named because the cardboard box houses a heavy plastic bladder filled with wine, is equipped with a spigot that doesn't allow oxygen -- wine's nemesis -- to enter the remaining liquid. The bag collapses as you draw wine out, so once opened, the wine stays fresh for up to three months, compared to the maximum four or five days associated with corks and even screwtops. I had a cask of California zinfandel on my kitchen counter open for over three months, and it stayed tasty up until we drained it one late, late night.

This is the first time "high-end," vintage-dated wines have been bagged, and Australia is pushing the cause by releasing plenty of great value-priced juice. Each 3-liter box, housing four bottles of wine, normally retails for under $20. Storage is easy: you can store the tall, squarish box conveniently on the countertop or in the fridge, and it features a six-pack-like handle for easy portability. Nice touch.

Recommended Wines

Blackbox 2003 Chardonnay Napa Valley From the makers of wildly overrated Blackstone merlot comes a pretty damn good chardonnay in the box. A bit on the sweeter chard side, with tropical things like mango and almonds popping out. Fantastic deal at $20. 1/2

Hardy's Stamp of Australia 2002 Shiraz Good for everyday drinking. Uncomplicated, smoky black cherry with some red raspberry thrown in kinda haphazardly. $14 for a 3-liter box. 1/2

Three Thieves 2003 Zinfandel California One of the first wineries to test the premium jug-wine waters, these guys are having fun. Blackberry jammy, smoky, spicy and quite drinkable. $11 for a one-liter bottle.

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